BRIAN Symphony No 13. Violin Concerto
Havergal Brian’s First English Suite (1905-06, here receiving its first professional recording) was his first great public success, its six movements as notable for their quirky individualism as for any debts to Elgar or Strauss. There are real gems here, such as ‘Interlude’, ‘a shimmering, glistening essay in sonic impressionism’, to quote Malcolm MacDonald, depicting the Shropshire countryside or the riotous, concluding ‘Carnival’. The Fourth, Kindergarten (c1921), is markedly different, its nine tiny movements (only the final pair exceed 90 seconds’ duration) partly an orchestrational study for the Gothic, the full orchestra used only in the final ‘Ashanti Battle Song’.
Marat Bisengaliev and Lionel Friend recorded the Violin Concerto (1934-35) over 20 years ago, mightily impressing Michael Oliver on one of my favourite Brian discs with The Jolly Miller and Symphony No. 18. Dutton’s new version is a strong rival, McAslan as virtuoso and searching an executant, more Romantic in expression, with a beguiling delicacy of touch. Listen to the unearthly, muted lento episode in the finale to hear the difference between McAslan’s filigree and Bisengaliev’s steel. Dutton’s sound has more depth, warmer and much less clinical than Naxos’s.
Brian’s reputation rests on his symphonies and these discs premiere three and restore to the catalogue the shortest of them all, No 22. After excellent accounts of two of Brian’s finest single-span symphonies, Nos 10 and 30 (8/11), Brabbins compels again in one of the toughest and most elusive, No 13 (1959-60), its 16 epic minutes traversing a dark landscape taking in the tragic and the exuberant, alternating barely accompanied solos with the grandeur of a massive orchestra with quadruple woodwind. A score that repays familiarity, Brabbins reveals its lyricism and polyphonic subtlety.
In a way, the triptych of Symphonies Nos 22-24 (1964-65) is easier to assimilate for the collectively larger scale and motivic inter-relationships. No 22, the nine-minute Symphonia brevis (the least unfamiliar, having been recorded previously), sets the ground for the combative No 23, an altogether larger work, and the single-span No 24, which attains first victory, then celebration and finally serenity. Brian really did do single-movement symphonies very well.
Naxos’s sound is clear and precise, the playing of the New Russia State Symphony Orchestra remarkably idiomatic if understandably tentative occasionally. Their account of English Suite No 1 is unquestionably superior to the City of Hull Youth Symphony Orchestra’s and much better recorded. Both are highly recommended to anyone wishing to understand this still much-misunderstood composer.